March 16, 2019


The Neanderthal renaissance: Handprints on a cave wall, crumbs from a meal: the new science of Neanderthals radically recasts the meaning of humanity (Rebecca Wragg Sykes, 3/15/19, Aeon)

Aside from the visceral satisfaction of a full belly, did the Neanderthals experience passions at a more profound level? Were they capable of self-expression, and abstract thought? Archaeologists are nudging closer to affirmative answers. Paintings found at three caves in Spain - La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales - include red-daubed stalactites and flowstone, a clean vertical line and, most enchanting of all, a stencilled silhouette of a hand. Just recently, scientists applied a dating technique measuring the radioactive decay of uranium-thorium in the minerals encrusting the paintings, thereby revealing a minimum age. The results were startling: the oldest ranged from 67,000-52,000 years, appearing some 20,000-7,000 years before we believe that H sapiens arrived in Europe. For many scholars, this represents strong evidence that Neanderthals were responsible. (Others are more hesitant: dating millimetre-thick flowstone layers is complex, and some results suggested contamination.)

Studies across Europe had already found that many cave paintings rested on a substratum of red hand-stencils, lines and dots. The line image at the La Pasiega site seems connected to a ladder-like form, although the other parts might have been added later. Even so, the findings raise the possibility that the first H sapiens entering Europe's caves walked into the darkness to find, not blank canvases, but walls blazing with ancient visions. If genuine, these discoveries have exposed a hidden layer of Neanderthal self-expression, sitting beneath the more famous Upper Palaeolithic oeuvre. Perhaps painting was even something our species actually learned, rather than being the independent wellspring of art.

Some of the Neanderthals' creations carry more than a hint of the eldritch - structures so old that their attribution is unquestionable. In the 1990s, hundreds of metres deep inside the Bruniquel cave in southern France, researchers uncovered stalagmites snapped off and arranged into two rings, encircling smaller piles. But it was only in 2013, after a suspiciously old radiocarbon measurement was taken, that researchers began studying them in detail. Over 174,000 years ago, it seems that Neanderthals walked into the isolated chamber and carefully built these large circular structures. More than 400 pieces from the central parts of the stalagmite columns were placed in layers, some balanced on top of each other, others standing in parallel. Many had been extensively burned, and blazes had been kindled in the small piles. At least some of the fuel was bone, potentially including bear, which isn't easy to set and keep alight. So far there are no artifacts, and no explanation for the rings, but these structures would have taken time and planning to create, and the foresight to provide sufficient illumination underground. Research is ongoing - most excitingly, to see what lies beneath the floor, entombed in calcium carbonate - but Bruniquel has already opened a vista onto a Neanderthal mind as elaborate as our own.

It's important to add a note of caution to all this, since Palaeolithic archaeology is still full of 'unknown unknowns'. It's true that we have no fossil evidence for H sapiens west of the Danube delta - never mind southern Iberia - before 45,000 years ago, which leaves Neanderthals as the chief suspects for the paintings. But absence of bones does not prove absence of hominins, and we know that H sapiens were making their way into the Levant by at least 150,000 years ago. So the case is not entirely closed for the cave art, even if the 3D creation at Bruniquel seems secure. Still, these revelations have radically altered our understanding, and expectations, of what Neanderthals did in their daily lives - which now includes the possibility of more esoteric practices.

Posted by at March 16, 2019 9:54 AM